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Ilya Repin's most provocative painting for the times.

Ilya Repin's most provocative painting for the times.

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The painting ‘Zaporozhtsy writing a letter to the Turkish Sultan’ stands somewhat apart in Ilya Repin's oeuvre. Still Repin is better known for his genre paintings, very authentically and vividly showing the life in Russia ‘humiliated and oppressed’, such as his classic ‘Burlaki on the Volga’ or ‘Procession in Kursk province. However, Repin's oeuvre is very diverse: there are in his asset and ‘fairy tale nude’ Sadko, nude real, a lot of wonderful portraits, for example, the composer Mussorgsky and even a painting depicting an ordinary cabbage at the dacha in Penaty.


But in creating ‘The Cossacks’ Repin stepped into the fiefdom of Surikov, who specialised in large-scale historical paintings - the most respected genre at the time. These paintings were always considered the most difficult - it was necessary to faithfully convey the colour of the era, to think through the composition, to write convincing and interesting images, costumes and environment of the time. It is not surprising that Repin worked on this painting longer than all the others. The idea came to him when he saw the historian Dmitry Yavornitsky's famous letter from the Zaporozhian people to the Turkish Sultan.

Zaporizhians write a letter to the Turkish Sultan

The Sultan, angry that the Zaporozhye managed to destroy his 15-thousand army, ordered them to go to his service, otherwise threatening them with complete extermination. Of course, the Zaporozhye did not obey him, and composed an epochal letter full of not always decent jokes and insults, where the classical beginning: ‘You are a Turkish shaitan, the cursed devil's brother and comrade-in-arms, and Luciper's secretary himself!’ in comparison with the rest of the text seems to be a verified and delicate diplomatic correspondence.

Zaporozhye people writing a letter to the Turkish Sultan. Sketch of the painting

And Repin went to Ukraine to collect material for the painting. Yavornitsky helped him a lot in this, giving him access to old Cossack clothes, weapons, pipes and all sorts of necessary trifles used by the Cossacks - so from the historical point of view Repin's painting is practically flawless. Repin had to write a huge number of all kinds of sketches before they could all be compiled into a single composition. On the trip, the artist sincerely admired the Cossacks: ‘here is a free people. No one feels the concept of freedom, equality and fraternity as they do’.

Cossack (ataman Serko)

Well, the main literary basis of this painting was Gogol's famous story ‘Taras Bulba’ - all the characters are taken from there. In the foreground is an elderly Cossack in a red zhupan - this is Taras Bulba himself, to the left is a handsome young man with soft features, probably the favourite of girls and women - Andrei. A little to his right is a stern Cossack with a bandaged head - Ostap Bulba. In the centre of the painting is the ataman Ivan Serko, from whose words the scribe, whose prototype was Dmitry Yavornitsky, is writing the letter - this is how Repin wanted to immortalise the historian's contribution to the painting. And in order for the artist to depict the scribe's crooked grin, Yavornitsky looked at caricatures in satirical magazines while posing.

Zaporozhye write a letter to the Turkish Sultan. Variant.

A Cossack sitting at the table with a bare torso reflects the free morals of the Cossack liberty. However, he is shirtless for a reason - next to him is a pack of cards, and one could play cards only undressed to the waist, so that there was no place to hide an extra ace.

The result was a real masterpiece, which - a rare case - suited Repin himself, who was characterised by extreme demandingness to his paintings and was always looking for some flaws in them.

Zaporozhye people writing a letter to the Turkish Sultan. sketch

Only recently some particularly ardent Ura-patriots have started to say that it would be good to remove this painting from the exposition in the State Russian Museum, and in general now it is too provocative and ambiguous, as if forgetting that Russia and Ukraine have a common cultural heritage.

And what do you think, whether this painting should be removed from the exposition, or it is better to leave everything as it is - write in the comments.

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